State Sen. Bobby Zirkin, who has led the Maryland Senate’s high-profile justice committee for five years, is resigning from office.
Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat who’s sat in the General Assembly since 1999, said Monday that he’s ready to move on from politics, which he said has become too divisive and driven by special interests and social media. He said he intends to focus on his law practice and a new venture helping professional athletes with their charitable work, as well as spend more time with his wife and two daughters.
“I’ve been thinking about this for years,” Zirkin said Monday in an interview at his Pikesville law office.
He said he also considered not running for reelection last year.
“I had made a commitment to [Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller] to come back,” Zirkin said. “Now that he’s stepping down, it’s the right time for me.”
Zirkin informed Miller of his decision in a phone call Monday, and plans to make his resignation effective in early January, before the 2020 session of the Maryland General Assembly.
In a statement, Miller praised Zirkin for his work on policy issues such as juvenile justice reform, marijuana decriminalization and cyberbullying.
“He is the definition of a bipartisan public servant — willing to make the hard decisions and lead the state — regardless of special interest pressure,” Miller said.
Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who has been nominated to be the next Senate president, said in a statement: “Over the last nine years, Bobby has been a colleague and a friend who has shown me not just how to judge policy, but also that the popular decision is not always the correct decision, and that policy hinges on the complexities, not the talking points.”
Zirkin’s decision comes on the heels of the resignation of his Baltimore County colleague Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, a Democrat who said Sunday that she’s stepping down due to health reasons.
His resignation leaves a key opening in Senate leadership, as Zirkin chaired the Judicial Proceedings Committee for five years, leading the review of scores of controversial bills, including changes in criminal law, the cash bail system, drug policy and gun control.
Once Zirkin’s resignation is official, the Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee will be required to nominate a replacement to Gov. Larry Hogan. Hogan can choose to accept or reject the nominee, but cannot propose his own candidate.
Zirkin counts among his biggest accomplishments the passage of Grace’s Law, an anti-cyberbullying bill inspired by Grace McComas, a Howard County teenager who died by suicide in 2012 after being bullied through social media. The law sets criminal penalties for using electronic media for bullying.
Zirkin also said he takes pride in Maryland’s ban on hydraulic fracturing, a form of drilling for natural gas that’s also known as “fracking.” Fracking was once proposed for Western Maryland, where some had raised concerns that it could contaminate drinking water wells and damage streams.
He played a key role in the state’s Justice Reinvestment Act, a 2016 law that aims to reduce the prison population by eliminating certain mandatory minimum sentences and directing low-level drug offenders into treatment instead of jail. Zirkin said the bill is “the most far-reaching criminal justice reform in the country.”
Zirkin got the fracking bill passed and signed by Hogan in 2017, after lobbying the Republican governor repeatedly — including over drinks at a Baltimore Ravens tailgate — to win his support.
Hogan, a Republican, described Zirkin as “a constructive partner in government who always puts the best interests of Maryland first.”
Though only 48 years old, Zirkin has spent most of his adult life in the General Assembly.
He was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1998 at age 27. After two terms in the House, Zirkin was elected to the state Senate in 2006. He’s been chairman of Judicial Proceedings since 2015.
Sen. Douglas J.J. Peters, a Prince George’s County Democrat, said Zirkin had a talent as Judicial Proceedings chair for explaining complex policies.
“He could take a complicated law and translate it into a simple story it made it easy for us non-lawyers to understand. That is the magic of Bobby. ... He was able to take 75-page bills and say: ‘Here’s what this bill does and here’s how it will affect your life,'" Peters said.
Zirkin has, at times, come under fire for his leadership of that committee.
In 2019, for example, gun control activists faulted him for the failure of a bill that would have required background checks for private sales of rifles and shotguns.
The House of Delegates and the state Senate passed different versions of the bill that were not reconciled by the time the General Assembly’s 90-day session ended. Gun control activists claimed Zirkin slow-walked the bill through his committee and then let the clock run out.
In 2017, a fellow Democrat, Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk, angrily stood on Lawyers Mall in Annapolis and called Zirkin “a Democrat in name only” after a bill called the Trust Act was gutted by Zirkin’s committee. The bill, as originally drafted, would have broadly prohibited the use of local or state government resources to help with immigration enforcement.
Some of Zirkin’s more progressive constituents became frustrated with what they said were his too-conservative votes. They formed a group called Justice 11 — named for the 11th Legislative District that Zirkin represents — and backed a challenger in the Democratic primary in 2018. Zirkin soundly defeated the progressive-backed candidate, winning 70 percent of the vote.
Zirkin takes the criticism in stride, and can be dismissive of his critics, particularly those who lash out on social media.
“The job isn’t to please people. It’s to protect people,” he said.
Social media makes government more transparent, he said, but it also “has allowed every nitwit with a phone to go on essentially with a bullhorn.”
Zirkin said he’s tried to push aside the chorus of critics and special interests and evaluate bills on whether they promote good public policies.
“I hope that when people look back at what I’ve done over my 20 years, that they would see that I made decisions on each bill based on the merit of it, not based on which group liked it. I’m not into groupthink in politics,” he said.
Zirkin’s 11th district includes neighborhoods in northwest Baltimore County including Pikesville, Owings Mills and part of Timonium.